What is a Smart City?

"Smart cities are places where information technology is wielded to address problems" - Anthony Townsend

This is the first primer in a series on Smart Cities and Urban Platforms.

Cities of all shapes and sizes are looking to the future and see the goal of becoming smart as an increasingly important driver. Like many movements to harness technology for the better, it is becoming difficult to define and understand what smart cities are and how they have become a cornerstone of contemporary urbanism.

What does being smart mean though in today's age of pervasive computing and an always on culture? Why do we need smarter cities? What are the prominent models of smart cities? Are problems or solutions driving cities to the new digital era? This primer intends to address these key questions and attempts to clarify the idea of smart cities now and potential paths forward.

"Smart" as an Adjective for a City's Logistical Abilities

Most definitions start with an urban environment that utilizes ICTs (information and communication technologies) to facilitate efficient infrastructures, improve public services, support entrepreneurial competitiveness, and to support smart growth. (1) While most cities are already considered smart as they adapt and respond using information available, it is through these ICTs and data from IoT and sensor networks that improves the ability to find and understand dynamics and patterns in the city. The ideal is for the city to harness this information to remain resilient as its services and the city's demand for them evolve.

These ICTs come in a variety of forms from municipal broadband initiatives to sensor networks and IoT implementations that are on the front line of making the built environment "intelligent," or at a minimum, networked and connected. They can be ground up solutions to neighborhood or block scale problems or corporate implementations of city-wide operations centers and publicly accessible dashboards and kiosks. Through the collection of data, cities and their partners are implementing solutions to perceived urban problems. Whether these technologies are simply models for data collection on the urban scale or they are living up to the ideals of optimization, safety, and sustainability improving the quality of life in increasingly complex and unpredictable environments is still up for debate.

Does big data and intelligence from a networked city improve public services or foster environments for disruption, innovation, or development? That is becoming the big question now that a number of cities have invested millions of dollars into digitizing their systems and preparing for a new way of solving problems with data. Much of the driving force behind the discourse and implementation of smart cities however comes from the private sector. Corporate- or technology-driven "solutions" come as packages detailing reachable urban ideals such as efficient traffic patterns, energy efficiency, water management, and reduced response times or delays for city services. These solutions are then being implemented following roadmaps drawn up by city stakeholders including city officials, industry leaders, and corporate partners and tend to harness private grants and smart cities challenges to help fund implementations however many implementations fail to address the role of the citizen in the decision making process.

Through these corporate "solutions," many cities are building up powerful data processing platforms for city governance however there are many cities taking another approach, where data is still collected but is becoming available on open-data marketplaces where citizens can identify and propose solutions as a bottom up approach to harnessing ICTs for the improvement of the urban environment.

Three Models

Germaine Halegoua elegantly defines three models that most smart cities fit within. The first is the smart from the start city, a model where new neighborhoods or in some cases such as Songdo, South Korea, entire cities are designed from scratch. These cities often have the clearest set of driving guidelines with complex platforms at their heart that connect to sensor networks and intelligent systems to efficiently provide services, manage optimized urban flows such as goods, traffic, and utilities, and create favorable economic and urban environments for private development and investment. These developments generally utilize corporate solutions including IBM's Smarter Cities Platform, Cisco's Kinetic Platform and CityNext from Microsoft among others that establish a framework or nervous system that combines a variety of inputs for data aggregation and analysis.

The second model is similar to the smart from the start model with the goal if implementing ICTs at the urban scale but to existing cities. Retrofitted smart cities combine the same platforms and corporate solutions available with the challenges of a city. Municipalities come together to develop roadmaps that tend to focus on city services and aging infrastructures ripe for optimization. Through the upgrade of some systems and sensing of existing ones, the city can reevaluate how resources are utilized to provide services, increase security and safety, and to foster economic goals of investment and development.

The last model is the social city, a shift from the first two in that it focuses on the citizens of the city and relationships rather than the services and infrastructures the city provides. It is a model where people utilize technologies to engage with the city and with each other with the intention to influence change. It calls for a power shift where problems are addressed through access to data collected by the IoT and ICTs as a means for placemaking and belonging and decision making is strengthened by the city's expanded relationship with the community. The role of the smart citizen becomes important as technology gives a voice to the public and democratizes the allocation of resources and provision of city services. This can be as simple as cities creating grassroots platforms such as Adopt a Fire Hydrant that people take on greater roles in maintaining and managing city resources to democratizing the decision making process as communities have done with the Play the City toolkit. By empowering and engaging with citizens, the smart city model is more driven by the identification of problems unique to the city and its communities rather than the implementation of corporate solutions that focus on the gathering of data as a means to gather data to define ways to address generic city problems.

City as a Service and Platform Urbanism

At the heart of a smart city is the centralized effort to collect information about an urban space for governance. By casting a wide net of sensors and cameras across the city, engaging with with social media, and opening up channels for citizen feedback, city officials and technology partners aggregate and use information about the flows of goods, services, and the underlying infrastructures in order to better serve the city. For municipal agencies, this creates the opportunity for intra-agency collaboration and citizen engagement providing ways to efficiently gather feedback from the city. Citizens can benefit from an improvement in the quality of life in the city with services that are more efficient and responsive. Businesses can harness the data for business development in order to increase revenue streams improving the economic viability of the city.

A lot of that sounds like marketing jargon and that is because many of the smart city "solutions" are offered by technology companies that focus on serving the needs of the city within the capabilities of a technological platform. ICTs and the companies that provide them serve cities with the goal of selling devices that contribute to the connected city and providing "city as a service" platforms that address common city patterns. These services commonly include:

  • air quality
  • communication and broadband internet connectivity
  • carbon and environmental emissions
  • internet of things devices and public wi-fi
  • lighting
  • mobility and public transit
  • parking
  • safety and security
  • traffic and transportation
  • waste and recycling
  • water management

Many smart cities platforms are secure enclaves of data aggregated and analyzed through the monitoring of public services to ensure issues are addressed as they pop up. They often utilize highlight systems that show growth or services with increased efficiency and limit citizen engagement to data creation as customers of the city rather than producers of the city. There are limitations to the corporate offerings though, they are in the business of problem solving rather than the business of problem finding. Since cities are adaptive and complex systems of patterns and flows, the model for addressing the cities complexities as simple and optimized patterns can be difficult unless the efforts are focused. This is at the heart of the value of the platforms, taking complex and messy traffic systems and running predictive models to optimize traffic systems and the behaviors of citizens who participate in those patterns.

City Data

Some cities such as Chicago and its Array of Things have turned to open data policies as attempts to allow the public to find ways to make use of big data. Open data platforms expand the city's roadmap for harnessing ICTs and data collection for problem solving by empowering citizens and local groups to identify problems while utilizing the data to propose solutions for the city to consider.

There are downsides to platform urbanism for smart city governance though. Platforms are only maintained as long as the city has funding to address them or the willingness of the vendor/manufacturer's willingness for maintenance given their nature of a "city as a service" subscription. This also means that if a certain platform's manufacturer decides to shift focus to something new or changes its offerings for municipal customers, a city may be forced to change its roadmap and yield control to the manufacturer or be stuck when updates become the responsibility of the city itself. Platforms also thrive in a competitive market and proprietary systems often preclude municipalities from switching to other platforms that may have better offerings, and that lack of transferability of data and systems lacks the motivation for manufacturers to keep innovating in their offerings.

This opens up a case for open sourcing civic infrastructural software and civic platforms. Is there a model where those responsible for updating civic systems can become crowd sourced following standards ensuring the ability for the city to future proof its investment in smart platforms?

There is also the question about data itself. Much of the city data collected is anonymous given the nature of the data from sensors but as they evolve and new technology including computer vision and social media as inputs become available to cities, privacy and the challenge of finding value in data collected while offering citizen protections becomes difficult. With a lack of oversight mechanisms, the discussion of data collection and public use becomes ripe for abuse.

The Smart Citizen

The definition of the city is changing not that the city is no longer a place for people to commune, generate culture and create community but is taking new roles in the erection of buildings and infrastructures for wealth generation. Where smart city systems encourage flows, they tend to disrupt spaces for "dwelling, pause and casual encounters that take place there" and starts to remove the unpredictability of the citizen in a position of decision making or their original role as a producer of the city. As the citizen loses agency in the discussion of the city, new stakeholders are coming in. Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal identify the "triple helix" of powers that are driving the course of city development made up of municipal governments, universities or research institutes, and technology industries and entrepreneurs.

The role of the citizen is evolving and it starting to take on new responsibilities. There are a number of initiatives being taken by cities to educate and empower people as "smart citizens" with the knowledge of how things work. Through existing city services including libraries and new ones like maker spaces, citizen engagement is becoming more than likes, retweets, and public meetings with municipality-led discussions but a source for both problems and solutions. Citizens bring up issues as well as potential solutions with the city supporting the effort with data and services to create a space for citizens as boots on the ground to solve issues. The city should empower and support problem solving from the ground up support the development of proof-of-concepts as well as elevate them as solutions to be implemented at a larger scale.

Smart cities are wires, sensors, dashboards, and databases at their core but their true definition comes from how we define what the city is and how how we want to move towards a future we desire.  When you strip away the ICTs and platforms, the city is still a place of culture and community with challenges.  It is tension in the power dynamics for decision making. however the smarts come fro its ability to improve through the technology we have available to us.

"They can be understood through histories of urban imaginations that prioritize maintaining order and efficiency and fostering economic growth and competitiveness in global and regional markets through technological and scientific developments... cities are pressured to do more with less." - Germaine Halegoua

Additional primers on Standards for Smart Cities, Open Data Policies and Responsibility, and Smart Citizens are in the works.


Photo Credit and Caption: Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City (photo by Sean Wittmeyer)

Cite this page:

Wittmeyer, S. (2021, 13 May). What is a Smart City?. Retrieved from

What is a Smart City? was updated May 13th, 2021.